The best fictional aunts
Published on: 22 November 2019 Author: Jaclyn Moriarty
Jaclyn Moriarty, author of the brilliant The Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone, tells us about her aunts in children's fiction.
Jaclyn Moriarty and the Extremely Inconvenient Adventures of Bronte Mettlestone
When I was asked to write this list, the first aunts to leap to mind were the ghastly, greedy Aunts Sponge and Spiker (although neither would 'leap' anywhere). I re-read James and the Giant Peach obsessively as a child, wrote my English thesis on Roald Dahl, and still occasionally reflect on the crunch—followed by silence—of the giant peach rolling over these aunts, flattening them like paper dolls.
Next, I recalled Aunts Etta, Coral and Myrtle from Island of the Aunts by the wildly imaginative and wickedly funny Eva Ibbotson. The opposite of James's aunts, these are warm, well-meaning women who kidnap children (in a terribly friendly way) to help them take care of mermaids, selkies and other magical creatures.
After this, I reached for Diana Wynne Jones's Black Maria (also known as Aunt Maria), so I could remind myself of her nature. (Sinister, I think, with a sweet persona.) But my hand landed on nothing. The book had vanished. I knew it was here somewhere—I ordered all of Diana Wynne Jones' books when I discovered her a few years back.
The solution, I decided, was to take every book from my bookshelves. This was a week ago now. I still haven't found Black Maria and my books remain scattered over the living room floor. Still, I did find The Game, also by Wynne Jones. It boasts a cacophony of aunts (Aunts May, Celia, Geta, Alice, etc, etc) in a delirious adventure involving the 'mythosphere'.
I love Wynne Jones for her exquisite plotting and humour, and for her seamless blend of our world with the magical—or, as here, the mythological.
The next day was my birthday. At a family birthday picnic, I asked around for fictional aunts. 'I just read a book that's full of aunts!' my mother said. 'Pat of Silver Bush by L.M. Montgmery. You know, Jaci, I think you and L.M. Montgomery should have met? You're very similar. Although, she's not quite as clever as you.'
So, I've not yet read this book (and, looking it up I can only find a reference to a single Aunt Hazel) but I've included it here anyway, so that everyone will know that my mother thinks I'm cleverer than L.M. Montgomery (and that it was recently my birthday).
The following day, I messaged my friend Michael, who has perfect recall for children's literature. He was on a train in Berlin but replied instantly, 'Aunt Fanny in The Famous Five, classic background aunt'. It was a good suggestion.
I always feel uneasy about Aunt Fanny, married, as she is, to the scowling, moody Uncle Quentin.
Michael would have come up with more aunts but at this point he realised he'd lost his umbrella and became distracted.
Next, I cheated and googled fictional aunts. I found Aunt Polly in Pollyanna (and in Tom Sawyer) and Great Aunt Maria in the Swallows and Amazon series. I'm allowing these, because I adored Pollyanna (and irritated everyone playing her glad game) growing up and because Michael would have remembered Great Aunt Maria with time. He introduced me to Arthur Ransome about a decade ago, and I read the whole series in a state of delirious joy.
The last thing I did was to wander amongst the books on my living room floor. I discovered the lovely Wormwood Mire by Judith Rossell, in which another set of cruel, mean-spirited aunts appear: Aunt Deliverance, Temperance and Condolence.
And finally, I tripped over Figgs & Phantoms by Ellen Raskin and found, on the back cover, a reference to Aunt Gracie Jo. Ellen Raskin's books are full of wordplay, puzzles, mystery, delicious strangeness and surprising emotional power. Mona, the main character in Figgs & Phantoms, was still clear in my memory but I'd completely forgotten her Aunt Gracie Jo, so I sat down and re-read the book. Turns out that Aunt Gracie Jo only appears twice: once on p 51 when she asks, 'You okay, Mona? Why aren't you in school?' and then again on p145 when she rides on a float in a parade and 'her imitation of a statue was so convincing that two pigeons came to roost on her head.'
I'm including her anyway. Even a glimpse of an aunt can be a world of story.